If it hadn’t have been for Spike Lee, I might have blissfully ignored Django Unchained, the much-talked-about Quentin Tarantino movie about a revenge-minded slave set in pre-Civil War America.
Granted, I’m not a big movie buff. I’ve seen several of Lee’s films and, for the most part, left the theater underwhelmed by the enormous self-seriousness of his work. As for Tarantino, I’ve never troubled myself to watch the full run of what others have described to me as overly violent and profane films, including Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill (volumes 1 and 2), and, more recently, Inglourious Basterds.
But Lee changed that. Admittedly without viewing the movie, the outspoken and often-bombastic Oscar-nominated film director took exception to the film on racial grounds.
“I can’t speak on it ’cause I’m not gonna see it,” Lee said in an interview with Vibe shortly before the movie was released last month. “All I’m going to say is that it’s disrespectful to my ancestors. That’s just me … I’m not speaking on behalf of anybody else.”
Lee followed that salvo a few days later with a Twitter condemnation, writing that, “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western.”
Well, that was enough to get me into the multiplex to see what all the fuss was about. I wanted to be in on the au courant conversation that seemed to consume social media at the start of the New Year.
There’s nothing like a race-based pop-culture contretemps to provoke racial chatter. In ways that politics and policy debates can only aspire to, a movie such as Django Unchained—or a proposed television show about a rapper with 11 children by 10 women, or a discussion of the nerdy sartorial style favored by black professional basketball players—commands public attention and sets tongues a-wagging about race like nothing else.
So I went to see Django Unchained—and I’m glad I did.
Clearly, as Lee’s criticism demonstrates, this isn’t a movie with universal appeal. Even my own take surprised me. I entered the theater with trepidation, and I came out conflicted about what I’d seen. The movie was unlike anything I’d expected or, to be perfectly honest, seen previously. But over the following few days, as I thought more about the movie, my appreciation for the film ballooned.
Similar to Lee, Tarantino is an artist and should have wide berth to make movies as he chooses. Patrons can also choose to pay for and watch their work—or not. Exercising that freedom shouldn’t be a racial Rorschach test.
As much as I enjoyed the movie, I should first mention its two serious shortcomings. First, the n-word fouls this movie like too much salt in the soup. The use of that vile epithet shows up a lot in Tarantino’s movies, leading some critics to complain that the white director must think he’s black or that he has a pass to behave as if he were. Granted, if ever there was a place for littering pop culture with the n-word, a movie that takes place in the antebellum South would be it. But while some subtle restraint might have done more to sooth 21st-century feelings about slavery, Tarantino isn’t one for light touches. In fact, nothing about Django Unchained is subtle—everything is an over-the-top excess.
Secondly, the film fails as a historically accurate representation of slavery and in its representation of the racial interactions of blacks and whites in the two years or so before the Civil War. There’s no way a free black man and a white man would have traveled on horseback as equals in the parts of the country—Tennessee and Mississippi? Really?—as shown. The idea of a black man with a pistol on his hip, comporting himself as an equal to whites, was the biggest taboo of all in both the movies and the real world of that time period. Similarly, in one pivotal scene, it’s unlikely that the Head Negro in Charge of the Big House would have sipped brandy in the library with his Master, no matter how loyal a servant he might have been. Such ridiculous touches signal that the movie isn’t meant to be taken as a historical documentary.
But the film never claims to be a historical documentary, and seeking veracity in this movie is a quibbler’s way to avoid enjoying an implausibly good story. At its heart, Django Unchained is a fantasy that features a love-struck black man doing whatever he must to save and be reunited with the love of his life, a black woman. That story is rare, and I loved the idea of it.
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